Chertoff: IT crucial for FEMA reform

The Federal Emergency Management Agency must improve information technology that supports situational awareness and resource logistics before, during and after a natural disaster, the Homeland Security Department’s secretary told Congress today.

“If we at DHS fell down, it’s largely in the area of planning,” DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said. A lot of planning was done during Hurricane Katrina relief efforts instead of before it, he said. A crisis is a time to execute already-formed plans, he said.

Chertoff spoke before the House Select Committee on Katrina to address criticisms of FEMA’s and DHS’ responses to Katrina.

After the storm struck, federal, state and local responders lacked accurate, timely and reliable information about conditions in affected areas, Chertoff said.

FEMA also struggled to figure out which areas had the greatest need, get supplies to those areas and track those supplies to ensure proper distribution, he said.

“In the end, you need to know who the people are, what they need, and in the end, you have to have the awareness of what’s going on on the ground,” Chertoff said.

Although FEMA is not a first-responder agency, it plays an essential role in coordinating state and local response efforts, Chertoff said. FEMA must address short-term and long-term needs of affected areas, he said.

First, FEMA should overhaul its logistics system by emulating the just-in-time inventory and delivery system used to great effect by the private sector and Defense Department, Chertoff said.

The agency should also make its disaster registration processes and databases more robust to help decision-makers allocate resources more effectively, the secretary said.

FEMA needs to develop an effective operations plan so it can perform its critical functions during a disaster, Chertoff said.

Before the next disaster hits, FEMA must also improve the efficiency and fraud-resistance of procurement procedures and the disbursement of emergency funds, he said.

To improve information sharing, FEMA must create its own communications infrastructure so it won’t be incapacitated by the destruction of public infrastructure during a disaster or event, Chertoff said.

DHS is exploring modifications to military and advanced private-sector communications technology that the department and state and local responders could use, he said.

To improve situational awareness and resource allocation after a disaster or incident, DHS is creating emergency reconnaissance teams that would deploy immediately after a disaster occurs, Chertoff said.

The teams include FEMA disaster-response specialists and experts from other DHS components, including the Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Secret Service, he said.

The teams already have communications equipment, helicopters and planes to get them on the ground so that they can relay information as quickly as possible, he said.

Criticized for not having adequate information about ground conditions after the storm, Chertoff told the committee that FEMA’s director will report directly to him once the department implements his proposed overhaul.

FEMA, one of DHS’ 22 component agencies, has only 2,400 full-time employees, Chertoff said. The agency provides a thin backbone of supervision for a large number of volunteers and other partners, he said.

Joining DHS has made that backbone stronger because the agency can access DHS’ inspector general and intelligence sources, Chertoff said.

“Without DHS, there would have been more problems than we encountered,” he said.

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